Hillary Clinton has eked out a crucial win in New Hampshire, a state her aides have long staked out as the "firewall" in her quest for the Democratic nomination. At roughly three points, the margin of victory is far smaller than her lead in state polls over the past 11 months, which often topped 20 points. But Clinton’s success will surely help stabilize her presidential campaign, which was rocked by infighting since her loss in Iowa. Rumors of a major staff shakeup had percolated for days: Campaign Co-Chair Terry McAuliffe already annouced that the campaign would "bring in more people to help," while James Carville and Paul Begala spent the primary day denying rumors they were taking over. On Tuesday afternoon, a Democratic source told The Nation that Team Hillary was still debating whether to hand the reins over to Steve Richetti, who served as President Clinton’s Deputy Chief of Staff – the strategic post that Karl Rove made famous.
Yet Clinton cleared away the doubts and struck an inspiring note in her victory speech, telling New Hampshire voters, "I listened to you, and in the process I found my own voice. I felt like we all spoke from our hearts and I am so gratified that you responded!" She was met with roaring applause. Clinton likened the narrow victory to her husband’s famous "comeback" in 1992, when he battled back to a surprising second place finish in New Hampshire. Then she offered a much more important parallel, vowing to give America the "kind of comeback" that New Hampshire just gave her.
The Clintons shared another political asset in New Hampshire, though farther offstage. Michael Whouley, the most respected field strategist in Democratic politics, was dispatched to overhaul the mobilization program in the state. Clinton aides had debated whether to deploy him in Iowa, where he had helped engineer John Kerry’s huge comeback in 2004, or task him with fortifying the famous "firewall." Some feared that his efforts would simply be wasted in New Hampshire if Clinton lost Iowa, but the "Plan B" advocates won, and now they look pretty shrewd.
Obama took the narrow loss in stride, congratulating Clinton and delivering a dignified iteration of his stump speech. Reminding voters that he was "far behind" for "most of this campaign," Obama repeated his call for a bipartisan "new majority who can lead this nation out of a long political darkness." He did not shy away from reiterating his contrasts with Clinton, claiming the mantle of a different, bolder campaign that is "not just about what I will do as president — it is also about what you, the people who love this country, the citizens of this country, can do to change it. That’s what this election is all about!"
If the boisterous beginning of this presidential campaign proves anything – and elections still do officially start with voting – it’s the empirical fact that a year of polls and predictions were flat wrong. Clinton was not an inevitable frontrunner, as her chastened aides now rush to emphasize; "cash on hand" is not even a rough predictor of political viability, as Mike Huckabee and John McCain are celebrating; polling remains unreliable, as every candidate says when the "second tier" comes calling; and while Iowa is powerfully pivotal, even the sum total of its caucus wisdom cannot dictate democracy in other states.
So Obama can only take cautious solace from his strong position in the next two states. I’m not talking about polls, of course — especially since Nevada’s tiny caucus electorate is inscrutable to surveys (its 9,000 attendees were 1% of the voting population last cycle) — but rather his political and organizational footing. Obama will receive the endorsement of Nevada’s most influential union, the Culinary Workers, and Iowa demonstrated his organization’s prowess in a caucus state. His aides have also built a strong network in South Carolina, the first primary with a significant black population. Meanwhile, John Edwards could reemerge with a strong finish in his birth-state of South Carolina, which he won in 2004. Clinton has no clear foothold in either state; this week her aides debated whether to surrender both and focus on regrouping for Super Tuesday. But even after winning New Hampshire, ceding two weeks to a delegate fight between Obama and Edwards would be dicey, potentially undermining claims that she is a fighter with national appeal. (Democrats want a nominee who can compete everywhere, including pivotal southwestern swing states like Nevada, which reelected Bush by a scant 21,000 votes.) Yet if Clinton competes and loses both states, she would be heading into Super Tuesday on two weeks of losses. That’s a tough slog either way, but then again, she’ll have more than five days to turn things around.